The world outlook

'The American eagle perched victorious on its mountain lair.'
Paul Keating

A prestigious American think tank told us recently that 66 per cent of humanity lives in high income or high growth countries; up from 25 per cent thirty years ago. A very powerful statistic.

Since 1982, the world has experienced a twenty-five year, long wave of economic growth, overlaid by only two cyclical investment recessions; 1989-1990 and 2000-2003. This extended period of high growth and low inflation has brought prosperity on an unprecedented scale. Growth has risen the world over in a long linear trajectory.

This period of macroeconomic consensus and stability has been called "the great moderation". A moderation in all the factors that go to the production of goods and services and their overall management in conducive monetary and fiscal frameworks. And coinciding with this long period of growth and stability was the strategic epiphany at the end of the 1980s; the end of the Cold War: the bipolar rivalry that characterised and threatened the peace of the world in the second half of the twentieth century. A bipolarity, that nonetheless, evaporated in an instant.

What replaced it was the unipolar moment of the West, with the American eagle perched victorious on its mountain lair. That victory, by some coincidence, also came with the full onset of globalisation. The opening of borders to goods and flows of funds with its concomitant intensification of trade and financial interdependence. As it turned out: a globalisation of economic growth annealed by a globalisation of peace. The first of a kind since that which followed the Napoleonic Wars.

The key question now and the central one of this address is, can that two-thirds of humanity, in those high income and high growth countries, assimilate that growth and prosperity, or will the condition itself corrode or hollow humanity out, slaking us of those earnest values and high convictions that have stood by us down through time.

'Are we capable - those of us in that opportune two-thirds of humanity - of forging a second Enlightenment?'

Perhaps, more than that, will the seduction of secularity and self absorption lure us into a bubble of spiritless contentment, sustained only the inability of others to organise themselves effectively to disrupt or appropriate it? Is it a case, as Pope Benedict recently remarked, that the Western world is "world weary of its own culture", a world "weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and the pain of false promises"? That is, a world without a guiding light; one without absolute truths by which to navigate.

John Stuart Mill made much the same point, seeing the great struggle of life as being between creativity and the "despotism of custom" or perhaps, we could say, between originality and tradition, of authenticity trying to breach those tedious moulds of contemporary culture, replete with their false idols and chimeras of an idealised happiness.

Benedict told us in Sydney that "life is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful" and we know that whenever those objectives become subordinated, we become lost, in a morass of preferences and experiences uninformed by truth or ethics. Experiences, he went on to say, which detached from what is good or true, "lead to moral and intellectual confusion and ultimately to despair". Are we capable - those of us in that opportune two-thirds of humanity - of forging a second Enlightenment?

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